Etgar Keret's startlingly unorthodox - and very brief - fictions are some of the best in Israeli literature By Chris Power The Guardian, Tuesday 29 January 2008
As an author, film director, playwright, TV scriptwriter, graphic novelist and university lecturer, Etgar Keret has been a ubiquitous figure on Israel's cultural scene since the publication of his second collection of short stories, Ga'agui Le'Kissinger (published in English last year as Missing Kissinger), in 1994.
Typically just a few pages long, Keret's stories are punchy, imaginatively audacious and often very funny, his humour lying between Woody Allen and Lenny Bruce. The son of Holocaust survivors, with an ultra-Orthodox sister and an anarchist brother, it is perhaps predictable that his work should be so resolutely non-ideological.
Keret draws fire from Israel's intellectual old guard for just this reason. The moderately left-wing writer AB Yehoshua, in particular, has criticised him for his ambiguity, which is a rare commodity in a state as polarised as Israel. Keret has rebutted this judgement - in print as well as during a heated face-to-face debate with Yehoshua - with the counterclaim that liberal Israeli literature is often hectoring, and patronising in its treatment of Palestinians.
This ambiguity has resulted in Keret being attacked from both sides of the political spectrum, and by Palestinians as well as Israelis. In the case of the 1994 story Cocked and Locked - in which a Palestinian taunts an IDF sentry until the soldier beats his brains out - Keret's refusal to promote any moral standpoint saw him denounced as both an intolerant Zionist and an antisemite.
Significant a rejoinder as Keret's writing is to traditional Israeli literature, his stories are perfectly accessible to readers who don't know Hamas from hummus. Stow one of his collections in your pocket and whenever you find yourself with five minutes spare you can parachute into worlds that sit enticingly askew from the day-to-day. The first of his stories I ever read, Fatso, describes a man who discovers that after nightfall his beautiful girlfriend turns into an overweight male football fan who likes trawling bars, drinking beer and eating steak. It's a skilfully told joke on one level, and could be argued to possess a political dimension on another, but it's also a touching exploration of how friendship binds lovers as well as passion.
Conflating the real and unreal while maintaining an emotional honesty is Keret's defining trait. His language is frank, conversational and unadorned, but its simplicity belies a superb sense of timing, as well as protecting his strange imaginings from tipping over into whimsy. The best, such as The Hollow People, A No-Magician Birthday, The Nimrod Flip-Out and Kneller's Happy Campers, combine instant gratification with lasting impact.
Keret's subjects are manifold, although certain settings recur. Many stories concern the army, which is to be expected in a society where the period of national service is three years for men and 21 months for women. The Holocaust often looms, although the manner of its commemoration is scrutinised with irony. Suicide is returned to obsessively (when he was 19 his best friend asked Keret to fetch something from an adjoining room then shot himself). Kneller's Happy Campers, which at 39 pages is virtually a novella by Keret's standards, posits a dreary afterlife set aside for everyone who has "offed" themselves. Palestinian suicide bombers drown their sorrows alongside Israeli right-wingers, and the tedium of the place is so great that some inhabitants wind up killing themselves all over again.
But after reading a glut of Keret's stories in succession their various concerns can be seen to coalesce into a single overarching theme. Whether humorous or mournful, fantastical or autobiographical, all that Keret characters are really trying to do is get by in a world that rarely makes any kind of sense. In a 2006 interview with the Believer, Keret explained:
"I think that any authentic feeling one has of life should be a feeling of defeat. It's a losing game. You're going to die. Civilisation is going to end ... If you really grasp what is going on ... you should feel some desperation. But that doesn't mean that you can't love your life or try to improve it."
Whether cataloguing human fallibility, savaging hypocrisy, mourning loss or just pointing out how cracked life can be, Keret's lean, singular stories recognise that the world might be a pretty shabby sort of place, but it's the only place we've got.